It sounds like some dastardly Orwellian plot that involves making a plaster imprint of your face and fashioning silicone fingerprints and fake passports. But identity theft is an all-too-real modern-day phenomenon. According to the Federal Trade Commission, more than a half-million Americans will have their identities stolen this year.
The most common types of identity theft are:
- using or opening a credit card account fraudulently
- opening cell phone or utility accounts fraudulently
- passing bad checks or opening a new bank account
- getting loans in another person's name
- working in another person's name
Though that last one doesn't sound so bad to us (especially if they're contributing to Social Security and making their way through the items in our "to do" box), the fallout from ID theft are annoying, at best, and extremely costly and really, really annoying, at worst.
How to avoid ID theft
Just how annoying is ID theft? Victims spend on average 175 hours and $800 to clear their names. In the interest of saving you a few C-Notes and several sleepless nights, here are some tips from the FTC on how to avoid identity theft:
- Actually look at your credit card and bank account statements, instead of just glancing over them quickly or passing them along to your spouse to pay off. This is usually the first place unauthorized activity will show up.
- Call your credit card company or bank if an account statement is late. A missing bill may mean some meanie called the company using your name, and changed the billing address to prevent you from catching their shopping spree.
- Don't give out personal information on the phone, through the mail, or online unless you initiate the contact or know the caller. Thieves will pose as bank representatives, Internet service providers, government agents, and ex-boyfriends to get you to reveal personal information.
- Tear or shred any documents that contain personal information. These include credit card receipts, insurance forms, physician and bank statements, and even credit card offers.
- Deposit outgoing mail directly into post office boxes, not in your own mailbox. A shocking number of thieves troll mailboxes for your personal information. If you're going on vacation, place a hold on your mail at the post office.
- If you're one of the few people who actually knows where your Social Security card is located, don't carry it with you! Stash it away in a safe place, and only carry a minimum number of ID and credit cards with you.
- Cancel any credit cards you don't need or use. Be sure to tell the lender to note the card as "cancelled at the cardholder's request."
- Don't pre-print your Social Security or driver's license numbers on your checks. The "Kittens in Basket" check motif you chose is enough to dazzle the Safeway store clerk.
- Give out your Social Security number only when absolutely necessary. Ask to use other identifiers when possible.
- If you suspect that you may be a victim of fraud, or are simply a worrywart, order a copy of your credit reports once a year to verify their accuracy.
- If you are really paranoid, then you can subscribe to a credit watch program, like the credit monitoring service offered by TrueCredit, that sends regular updates on any credit activity done in your good name.
How to remedy ID theft
If you find that your good name and stellar credit rating are being dragged through the mud, here's what to do.
1. Report the theft with each of the three major credit bureaus (they all have fraud centers). Ask that a "fraud alert" be placed on your file. Also request that no new lines of credit be granted without first seeking your approval. You'll be asked to record the incident(s) in writing, and include copies of any documents (e.g., a police report, correspondence with your bank or other creditors) to be used as evidence. Here's contact information for each major credit bureau:
Equifax (http://www.equifax.com/), P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241; report fraud by calling (800) 525-6285
Experian (formerly TRW, http://www.experian.com/), P.O. Box 1017, Allen, TX 75013; report fraud by calling (800) 301-7195
TransUnion (http://www.transunion.com/), Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92634; report fraud by calling (800) 680-7289
2. Close accounts that have been fraudulently accessed or opened. To do so, contact the security departments of the appropriate creditors or financial institutions. If you open any new accounts, put passwords on them (and don't use the obvious ones like your mother's maiden name, your Social Security number, or the first six digits of your deceased great aunt-in-law's phone number).
3. File a report with local police, or the police where the identity theft took place. Be sure to get a copy of the report (or report number) in case the bank, credit card company, or others need proof of the crime.
4. Be a tattletale. The FTC provides an ID Theft Affidavit that can help you organize and accurately record your complaint. All three major credit bureaus and most of the large lenders accept this form as notice from you. You can also call the ID Theft Clearinghouse toll-free at (877) ID-THEFT (438-4338) to report the theft. For more information on how to deal with credit-related ID theft, check out the ID Theft website. If the crime involves your Social Security number, call (800) 269-0271 or visit the Social Security Administration's website.